Nero may have some rough edges and frame rate problems, but the brief experience offers a genuinely affecting story that lives up to the ‘interactive novel’ billing.
The term interactive novel is tossed around a lot more now when it pertains to games, but very few live up that billing. Some games are mostly just text adventures, while others’ narratives can’t live up to those story-focused aspirations.
Nero, from developer Storm in a Teacup, is that rare breed of puzzle game/interactive novel that succeeds in being a moving, albeit brief, experience. It proves that sometimes the journey may have plenty of bumps, but if the destination is appropriately affecting then it may be all worth it. Nero is a game that will stick with players long after they’ve finished the 3-hour puzzler, and that in itself is a major accomplishment.
At its core, Nero is a first person puzzle game in the vein of old school PC titles like Myst. Players take control of the shrouded figure known as Nero and guide him through a series of environments, as he tries to unravel a mystery. Now that mystery may be a bit obtuse at first, but eventually things come into greater focus, and by the end Nero will hit players like a ton of bricks. Grief, loss, and hope are all primary themes in Nero’s narrative, and the way Storm in a Teacup surfaces those ideas is refreshing.
That isn’t to say the game is without fault, though; in fact, Nero is rough around almost all of its edges. From the design of the game, which favors luminescent splashes of color amidst dark backgrounds and structures, to the actual puzzles themselves, Nero’s component parts could have used a little more time in the oven. Visually, the game is stunning, but the frame rate is inconsistent the whole way through. Sure, there’s a tremendous amount of detail in the sparse environments, but walking through those locales results in lots of stutters.
What’s interesting about Nero’s design is that Storm in a Teacup litters the environment with floating text meant enrich the story. So as players progress they will be fed both narration and these short text bits almost like pieces to the larger narrative puzzle. Admittedly, the choice of neon colors against the dark backgrounds sometimes makes the floating text hard to read, but not to the point they’re illegible.
In between reading the floating text, hearing some cryptic narration, and exploring the beautiful environments, Nero stops for some light puzzling, which in turn unlocks more of the story. For the most part the puzzles are pretty basic; typically they boil down to hitting the right switches in the right combination, but a few can be quite challenging. Not all of the puzzles are required, though; some are even off of the beaten path and will need a little extra thinking to solve. However, once players do complete the puzzles they will be fed a little more of the story. So while players can certainly speed through the game focusing only on the main puzzles and text, there is actually more to uncover by seeking out side puzzles and through the game’s collectible system, which reconstructs photographs one piece at a time.
Then again, it seems strange to hide some of the story off the beaten path, especially for a game billed as an interactive novel. By the end it felt like enough of the pieces of the story were explained that the conclusion made sense, but it was hard not to escape the sense that maybe something was missed.
But what a story it is. Nero stays true to its billing as an interactive novel, and while there are plenty of hiccups in nearly every facet of the game, none of them are particularly experience-ruining. Our recommendation is to stick with the game – enjoy the stark visuals and forgive the easy puzzles in service of uncovering a genuinely affecting story. Storm in a Teacup surely has some talented people within its walls, and we can’t wait to see how they follow-up Nero
Nero is available now for Xbox One. Game Rant was provided an Xbox One code for this review.